The torrent of praise from President Bush, Republican congressional leaders and political pundits for retiring Rep. J.C. Watts, a GOP member from Oklahoma, sharply contrasted with the deafening silence from black Democrats and civil rights leaders. This should hardly surprise.
After his election from a predominantly white district in 1994, he threw down the gauntlet to black Democrats. He defiantly declared he would not join the Congressional Black Caucus.
In one of the keynote addresses at the Republican convention in 1996, Watts also challenged the old-line civil rights leadership. He punched all the conservative hot buttons, championing family values and self-help and hammering welfare and public housing.
Watts goaded black Democrats and civil rights leaders a year later when he branded them "race-hustling poverty pimps." It was a low in mudslinging, and the reaction was swift and harsh.
A somewhat chagrined Watts and his Republican mentors rushed to claim that he was not talking about any one leader or point of view. However, anyone remotely familiar with the political battle between liberals and conservatives knew what and whom he meant and what they represented--liberalism and blacks.
But Watts was not skating entirely on thin political ice in his attacks on traditional black leaders. He knew that a growing number of blacks publicly called themselves conservative and that many blacks privately agreed with his political beliefs.
Watts also knew that the old-line civil rights leadership was in crisis. It was relentlessly battered and bruised during the 1980s and 1990s by conservative politicians and a lack of leadership. Much of the public had become hard-nosed against increased civil rights protections and social programs.
Watts and black conservatives believed that time and the deep financial pockets of GOP conservatives were on their side and that more blacks would eventually rally to their banner, leaving Watts and company the new black leaders.
However, although many blacks brand traditional black leaders the purveyors of "plantation politics," calling them sycophants of the Democrats, most blacks will continue to be Democrats.
And while Bush made much about inclusion before and during the presidential campaign, the Florida vote debacle still rankles many blacks. The president also has been silent on expanded hate-crime laws and mandatory sentencing laws. He has opposed any discussion of black reparations and has renewed his call for school vouchers, which most black Democrats and civil rights leaders condemn.
Then there's Bush's shabby treatment of the Congressional Black Caucus. Its members, all solid Democrats, have repeatedly asked for a meeting with the president to try to work out colossal differences. Bush has repeatedly put them off. This is a terrible mistake. For the last 30 years, black officials have fought tough battles in the courts and in Congress for voting rights, affirmative action, school integration and an end to housing and job discrimination and police abuse. Many blacks regard the caucus as their political voice, and they expect Bush too to recognize and respect it.
Though some blacks have reservations, if not outright doubts, about affirmative action, welfare and other social programs, they are not prepared to dump them. Watts and black conservatives are, but they offer nothing better. Their politics and leadership are just as "plantation" as the black Democrats they gleefully lambaste.
That was apparent in how the Republican leadership used Watts. He was a good mouthpiece for conservative causes and a visible symbol of their supposed commitment to racial inclusion. But, his position as No. 4 House GOP leader notwithstanding, how much real power did he have within his own party? That is the ultimate dilemma of Watts and black conservatives. Black voters will continue to reject their Republican pitch, and the GOP will continue to reject them as equal partners in power. Watts realized this, and he did the only thing he could do: He left.